The Strange Genius of the Master

Evelyn Waugh, 1920s; photograph by Cecil Beaton
Cecil Beaton Studio Archive/Sotheby’s London
Evelyn Waugh, 1920s; photograph by Cecil Beaton

Philip Eade, so his publisher tells us, has worked as a barrister, an English teacher, and a journalist, which makes him particularly suitable as a biographer of Evelyn Waugh, who in his time was a gossip columnist, a war correspondent, and a teacher at an extremely seedy boarding school in Wales, an institution that he lampooned hilariously in his first novel, Decline and Fall; he was also violently capricious, and had he not found God and art he might at one or another stage of his life have been in urgent need of a criminal lawyer.

It was said of T.S. Eliot, whose poetry Waugh, surprisingly, held in high esteem, that he had the dark and stealthy demeanor of a murderer living in constant expectation of the body of his victim being found; Waugh, for his part, looked like a man with a longing to do fatal harm to a great many people, including even some of those close to him. Yet he was cherished by friends and grudgingly admired by his enemies. After his death, his longtime agent A.D. Peters wrote: “I loved him and I shall miss him for the rest of my life.”

How to account for our continuing fascination with this first-rate novelist but not quite first-rate artist? His books are very fine, and among them are a number of blackly comic masterpieces and a masterly war trilogy; however, what he called when he was writing it his opus magnum, the World War II extravaganza Brideshead Revisited, his greatest critical and commercial success, is, despite many wonderfully sustained and beautifully written passages, a soggy mess: sentimental, queasily religiose, self-indulgent—as he later came ruefully to acknowledge—dismissively class-conscious, in places embarrassingly melodramatic, and in other places just plain silly. His lofty position in twentieth-century English letters is assured by such novels as his brilliant debut Decline and Fall and Scoop, in which he eviscerated Fleet Street journalism in the 1930s, and by the Sword of Honour trilogy, which in its elegantly bleak and comically absurd fashion expresses more about the nature of war and warfaring than Hemingway and Clausewitz put together.

He was the leading writer of fiction among his English contemporaries—Graham Greene considered him the greatest English novelist of his day, which says a lot, and probably a lot more than Greene intended—yet he seems to us now more an eighteenth-century figure, sozzled half the time and the other half frantically industrious, a professional to the tip of his pen, with something of Dr. Johnson’s melancholia and of Burke’s sublime conservatism. He had no Flaubertian flounces: he wrote to be successful, to be acclaimed, and to make money. When he was starting out, milking the lavish success of Decline and Fall for all there was to…

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